The high-stakes debate over guns’ role in society has created a small crack in the united front presented by Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama — and that crack may widen because the politicians face very different political incentives during the next few years.
The crack was made clear Jan. 27 by Obama, who portrayed widespread opposition to his push for gun curbs as as a provincial cultural quirk devoid of any political purpose, or of any relevance for suburban districts like Newtown, Conn., where a well-armed psychopath murdered 20 children and six adults on Dec.14.
“Part of being able to move this forward is understanding the reality of guns in urban areas are very different from the realities of guns in rural areas,” he claimed in an interview with The New Republic magazine published Sunday but conducted on Jan. 16.
“If you grew up [in a rural area] and your dad gave you a hunting rifle when you were ten, and you went out and spent the day with him and your uncles, and that became part of your family’s traditions, you can see why you’d be pretty protective of that,” Obama said, shortly after making a cursory claim that “we respect the rights of responsible gun owners.”
Biden, however, frequently offers a broader understanding of guns’ diverse role in American society than Obama’s narrow depiction of firearms as a cultural oddity.
As a progressive, Obama says people can best prosper when they look to the federal government for protection and support.
In sharp contrast, many Americans regard guns as as vital part of their longstanding emphasis on self-reliance, on families, on local communities and on non-government groups such as churches, charities and advocacy groups. Biden’s comments show he recognizes this argument.
During an online chat Jan. 24, for example, Biden described how a grandmother showed him how she used a gun for self-protection and said owning guns for self-defense is a “non-negotiable” constitutional right.
Relying on guns for safety “is a legitimate and respectable tradition and I think it should be honored and it is not the problem,” Biden said.
He said the White House’s calls for new gun restrictions would only apply to weapons with features that aren’t needed for self-defense — such as so-called “assault weapons” and large-capacity magazines.
“A shotgun will keep you a lot safer — a double-barreled shotgun — than an ‘assault weapon’ in somebody’s hand who doesn’t know how to use it, even one who does know how to use it,” said Biden, who grew up in Pennsylvania and Delaware. “You know, it’s harder to use an assault weapon to hit something than it is a shotgun.”
“Assault weapons” is a term used by gun-control advocates to stigmatize semiautomatic guns that look like soldiers’ rifles. Technically, the term describes soldiers’ battlefield rifles that can operate as semiautomatics rifles or as fully automatic machine guns. Under existing law, assault weapons are deemed machine guns and their possession is sharply restricted.
Biden’s open acknowledgement of Americans’ established views on guns likely reflects his careful navigation of gun-related controversies during his long race whose only remaining checkpoint may be the 2016 presidential election.
He is trying to simultaneously woo anti-gun Democrats who are important in the Democratic primaries and security-conscious suburban mothers who are important in the general election.
But Biden is also trying not to alienate the large number of American gun owners who can sway the results of presidential elections.
So he’s pushing for curbs on guns — for example, establishing a ban on so-called “assault weapons” and high-capacity magazines — while also arguing that such curbs would not imfringe upon people’s ability to hunt or protect themselves.
In contrast, Obama faces a different political problem, following his final election campaign in November 2012. His incentives have prompted him to stoke suburbanites’ latent worries about guns before the 2014 midterm election, regardless of that strategy’s impact among rural voters who are important in presidential elections.
His ambitious progressive agenda has largely been stymied since 2011 by the GOP’s victory in the 2010 and 2012 House elections, and so he’s now trying to win back control of the House of Representatives in 2014.
“Until Republicans feel that there’s a real price to pay for them just saying no and being obstructionist, you’ll probably see at least a number of them arguing that we should keep on doing it,” he said in the New Republic interview. “It worked for them in the 2010 election cycle, and I think there are those who believe that it can work again.”
He’s already created high-profile fights on the budget issues, and this week he’s expected to provide another fight by calling for a large-scale rewrite of immigration law and for conditional amnesty to be awarded to at least 11 million illegal immigrants.
He’s largely given up hope of pressuring GOP legislators from rural or conservative districts that include many gun-rights supporters. “The House Republican majority is made up mostly of members who are in sharply gerrymandered districts that are very safely Republican and may not feel compelled to pay attention to broad-based public opinion,” he said in the New Republic interview.
But in his White House press event — which was conducted shortly before the New Republic interview was conducted— he aimed his appeal at suburban, swing-voting mothers worried about armed lunatics in their neighborhoods.
Voters should ask the GOP legislators who support gun-rights, he said, “what’s more important — doing whatever it takes to get a ‘A’ grade from the gun lobby that funds their campaigns, or giving parents some peace of mind when they drop their child off for first grade?”
That attempt to portray the National Rifle Association as the enemy of mothers and small children will spur opposition from gun-rights supporters, but Obama doesn’t need their support in 2014 or 2016.
Moreover, he uses any hot-headed reaction from gun-rights activists to portray them as extremists.
Republicans have begun warning their supporters that Obama trying to provoke fierce controversy on numerous topics. “The president will bait us,” Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan said Jan. 26 at the National Review Institute Summit. “He’ll portray us as cruel and unyielding.”
Obama’s divisive strategy can pressure suburban GOP legislators to back Obama’ gun-control demands, or even prompt their constituents to vote them out of office — giving Obama a Democratic majority in the House during the last two years of his second term.
But that wedge strategy doesn’t work for Biden, and may even hinder his efforts to reassure gun-rights supporters before 2016.
“Both left and right sometimes take absolutist positions, but the vast majority of the American people agree on basic, basic principles relating to public safety and gun-safety,” Biden said Jan 24, adding “I met with the NRA, by the way.”
Overall, he insisted about the issue, “I don’t view it as gun control, but as gun safety.”